The Christmas truce of 1914 has become the stuff of legend. The image of soldiers from both sides leaving their trenches for an impromptu kick-about and carol concert belongs in the pages of a fairy tale, not on the bloodiest battlefield of the First World War.
For most men, though, there was no fairy tale, no truce, just the hope of gifts from home and perhaps something special for lunch.
But for one Sussex man, there was at least a football match!
In January 1915, the Sussex and Surrey Courier published a letter from a farrier named Jubb, who was serving with the 39th Battery of the Royal Field Artillery. Before the war, young Jubb worked for Mr A Card, an East Grinstead blacksmith.
Describing his Christmas morning to his aunt in Blindley Heath, he wrote: “We had fried bacon for breakfast and a brown tinned stew for dinner and half a pound of plum pudding, so you see we got a little cheer. We played football, just to liven things up a bit, and the Germans let us have a rather quiet day.”
Of the letters shared with the Courier, one of the most heartbreaking came from a young corporal who wrote about the explosion of a ‘Jack Johnson’ – the nickname given to a German artillery shell.
His letter read: “In a corner we found a chap of the Highland Light Infantry lying dead with all the nice presents that had been sent out from home round him.
“There was a plum pudding, packet of chocolate, some matches and a lot of cigarettes, with socks and woollen comforters and things. His head had fallen forward on top of the box with the pudding and his hands were resting on the box of cigarettes.
“On his lips was the smile that you would expect from any man who found himself remembered so well at this time of the year.”
Hopefully the poor man felt no pain and his last thoughts were of his loved ones.
Many of the letters described that Christmas morning as cold and frosty, after a week of rain.
Farrier Jubb wrote: “It has been very wet this past week, and we have been nearly flooded out. Our guns have been in about one foot of water, but our boys don’t mind the water.”
Corporal CH Mitchell, of the 2nd Royal Sussex, wrote to his mother that he and his comrades had spent much of Christmas Eve trying to get their clothes dry after a three-mile yomp through mud and rain to an old barn, where they slept through to Christmas morning.
He wrote: “Christmas Day we woke up to find Jack Frost had painted everything white. It was a pleasant change after so much wet, but wasn’t it nippy.
“I had a rasher fried for breakfast, then wrote a dozen postcards; after that we had a church service in the farmyard, then came dinner.”
A couple of hours’ snooze and a camp fire concert in the evening finished the Corporal’s Christmas Day – before Boxing Day found him back in the trenches where “we found plenty of mud...and we got more rain”.
He wrote to his mother while sitting in “a fairly comfortable dug out”, saying: “Outside things are fairly quiet, except for occasional shots from snipers and the low voices of the men on watch; the main topic of their conversation is home and what they would be doing if they were there now.”
Thoughts of home no doubt brought memories of Christmases past, complete with trees and decorations. One letter showed how the creative Tommys used anything they could to recreate those happy times.
One Sussex man with the Honourable Artillery Company gave a beautiful description of Christmas morning in the trenches.
He wrote: “The morning was beautiful, all the ground was covered with hoar frost, likewise the horses and ourselves. We made a fire and cooked some bacon for breakfast, then got a bit of stick and made a Christmas tree.
“We hung on it a mangel-wurzel, an empty Nestle’s Swiss milk tin, a penny Christmas stocking that one buys in toy shops and a cocoa tin. We then formed a circle round it and sang carols. Jolly fine they sounded too, but it was cold at 5am.”
Despite the truce elsewhere and the temporary peace found by many of the men, for some the war still raged.
Sergeant Charles Coleman told his parents in Selmeston that the men had “forgot about it being Christmas Day” - and the bombardment from the German forces made it just another war-torn day.
He wrote: “I spent a rather dull Christmas, as we were in the trenches. We had some crackers at day break - although they were in the shape of shrapnel shells. But they were soon finished and did no damage.”
The Sergeant described the trenches as “the worst lot we have been in” and added: “At some parts we were near enough to hear the Germans talking and we drove some of them out of one trench by throwing hand grenades and bombs.
“Of course they did their share of bomb throwing, too, and we had to move a bit quick at times to dodge them.”
No matter the contents of the letters, whether the men were shivering in the cold or wading through the mud, whether they were terrified or in control, they all sent one message home – ‘I’m alright, don’t worry about me’.
The thought of such courage from ordinary men and boys is one of the reasons we honour them to this day.
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